Young Hospital Director Creates Small Victories in Haiti

04/04/2011 01:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

Conor Shapiro first visited Haiti as a sophomore at Middlebury College. He was a history major, not pre-med, and had gone with his father and an outside group for a week-long trip. That week became the unlikely inspiration for the rest of his life's work.

"I had never been anywhere like Haiti before," Conor says. "The people were so inspiring. They were doing remarkable things in the face of poverty; whether it was the mothers getting drinking water for their kids or farmers trying to sustain themselves among these terrible land or seasonal changes. Their perseverance was remarkable to me."

Knowing only that he wanted to work in Haiti after graduation, a sparsely attended lecture from Paul Farmer, the head of Partners in Health, pushed Conor over the edge during his senior year. "Farmer had dedicated his life to the poor in rural areas," he says. "He told me what was really going on, about this international movement to get help for patients in developing countries."

Through Farmer's encouragement, Conor went to work with the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, a nonprofit health organization based in Fond des Blancs. He slept on a "rat-infested" rectory floor and taught English, all the while dedicating himself to working with HIV/AIDS-inflicted patients, giving them access to therapy, food, medical care, and social work.

He and Farmer soon became allies in the fight against AIDS, dispensing medication to thousands in need and working tirelessly on the ground with inflicted patients. Conor even helped secure a young boy, whose mother had died in Haiti, a home in America -- with Conor's own family in Concord, Massachusetts.

But Conor realized that if he wanted to continue improving his work with St. Boniface patients, he'd need further medical education. So in 2006, he went back to BU and obtained a masters in public health, all the while jetting back and forth from Haiti and continuing his work with St. Boniface. "The reason I went back to school was specifically for St. Boniface -- I knew that's where I wanted to spend my life."

Just three weeks before the earthquake struck, Conor was named General Director of St. Boniface -- "director on the ground," as he called it. Little did he know how much this new position would impact his life and the lives of thousands of others.

"I remember distinctly the night after the earthquake," Conor says. "Many of us were dealing with families at Port-au-Prince, and the whole staff had come together in this remarkable way. Everyone was sleeping out in the yard, sleeping in the ambulances, because we were worried about aftershocks. I just remember the incredible solidarity among the staff members."

One of Conor's first major decisions as General Director was to take in patients dealing with spinal chord injury, a task no other hospitals were able to deal with at the time. "These patients were living on the USS Comfort out on the bay," Conor says. "These were kids, some of them, and not a single one was standing. We didn't have any specific training or experience with this, but I remember Dr. Pierre, our medical director [at the time], said to me: "We need to take these patients in. We have to see what we can do."

Today, St. Boniface is a national center for spinal chord injury, borne out of the patients they took in after the earthquake. "Some are still at the hospital getting rehab, doing vocational training, or we're taking them to mobile clinics in Port-au-Prince. Many of their family members' live in tents at our grounds. Others have completely integrated back into their communities."

One of Conor's favorite stories comes from Wilgui, a young boy who was paralyzed from the waist down after the earthquake. "He was with us for a very long time, needed critical care, rehab, he received a lot of rehab from local Haitians," Conor says. "We recently got a photograph of him as class president. He was class president before the earthquake and he just sent us this picture of him in his wheelchair, in his classroom. His friends push him to and from school every day."

Alysia Mueller, communications officer for St. Boniface, compliments Conor's incredible service to their organization. "Conor was there before the earthquake, before the cholera, before the elections and he'll be there long after all that trying to make things right."

Today, Conor's wife (whom he met and married in Haiti) and two daughters are based in the United States. While he still works just as hard for St. Boniface, he knows Port-au-Prince is not the best school system for his children. Still, the separation from Haiti has been difficult. He travels back and forth, often, and was recently named Executive Director of the organization.

"It's easy to try and sum up Haiti in a news article," Conor says. "But I don't think it's possible. People look for this negative news coming out of the country and it's not always there. There's a tremendous amount of courage and perseverance, and I hope as we move forward that there's more of a focus on the small victories."